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New: The Tea Party, Planning and Democracy(Part One)

By Zelda Bronstein
Wednesday January 25, 2012 - 10:08:00 AM

[Editor's Note: This is the first part of a two-part news analysis which explores some unexpected synergies between Tea Party protesters and progressive opponents of planning policies which are perceived as anti-democratic. Part 2 will appear on Friday.]

Most people regard meetings about regional planning, if they regard them at all, as soporific, PowerPointed affairs frequented by policy wonks. But on January 11, I attended a regional planning workshop in Dublin that was anything but dull. That’s because protesters from the East Bay Area Tea Party showed up along with some “fellow travelers” and nearly took the evening over. Their appearance was no surprise. 

For over a year, members of the Tea Party have descended on planning events around the country. The Dublin event, sponsored by the lead regional planning agencies in the Bay Area, the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), was the Alameda County installament of the second round of county-based Plan Bay Area public meetings [] about the forthcoming Sustainable Communities Strategy/Regional Transportation Plan (SCS/RTP) mandated by the 2008 legislation, SB 375. The Tea Party also weighed in at the first round, held last May, as well as at all of the second round workshops that have been held so far. 

SB 375, signed by then-Governor Schwarzenegger, requires California to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. To that end, each of the state’s eighteen metropolitan planning organizations—in our case, ABAG plus MTC—must prepare a long-range plan that integrates its region’s transportation, housing and land use in ways that get people to drive less. In the Bay Area, as elsewhere in the country, this is called planning for “smart” growth and “sustainable” development. 

The Tea Party and its allies contend that such planning intends to force Americans out of their cars and their single-family homes with yards and garages and into mass transit and high-density housing, and to pursue a social justice agenda that discriminates against property rights and the middle class. 

They trace the origins of this campaign to an obscure 1992 United Nations document called Agenda 21. One of the two dozen or so dissidents milling in the big plaza outside the Dublin Civic Center handed me a leaflet with the headline: “Sounds like science fiction…or some conspiracy theory…but it isn’t” [ellipses in original]. Written by Santa Rosa resident and certified real estate appraiser Rosa Koire, the leaflet claims that “all the General Plans of [American] cities and counties” are permeated by Agenda 21 policies advocating government “control of all land use” and the disfranchisement of private property owners; “round[ing] up people off the land” and moving them into “islands of human habitation, close to employment centers and transportation”; and “a redistribution of wealth” that will lower Americans’ standard of living “so that people in poorer countries will have more.” On Wednesday evening, these claims were echoed by slogans called out through a bullhorn by founder of the East Bay Tea Party, Heather Gass, an Alamo realtor: “We don’t want race-based engineering here!” “They’re coming for your cars!” “We want equal justice, not social justice!” 

But what offends Tea Partiers isn’t only planners’ alleged goals; it’s also the way those goals are pursued—according to these critics, via an authoritarian process that treats ordinary citizens with contempt. “Politburo Planning,” read the big hand-lettered sign held by Pleasanton resident and registered nurse Tom Bacon as he stood in the Civic Center parking lot next to his American flag-bedecked, 1987 Ford three-quarter ton tow truck. A few yards away, the demonstrators in the plaza displayed smaller signs that said “ABAG/MTC don’t speak for me,” “This is a rigged meeting” and “We’re being railroaded.” 

The protesters at the Dublin meeting asserted that the workshops were packed with employees of public agencies and their non-profit “partners” such as Greenbelt Alliance, Urban Habitat and TransForm. As evidence of such favoritism, they pointed to the online registration procedure, starting with the registration form, which asks prospective attendees to choose among the following affiliations: Advocate: Business Interests; Advocate: Environmental Interests; Advocate: Public Health Interests; Advocate: Social Justice Interests; Concerned Individual; Elected Official; Public Sector Staff (government agency staff); Other; and Advocate: Reduced Role in Government. Noting that the Plan Bay Area website says that the workshops are filled, but that you can still register and be placed on a waitlist, they argued that when places open up, people who identify themselves as advocates for a reduced role in government are passed over. In Dublin, one of the dissenters told me that at the May workshop she attended, she “was the only citizen at the table.” The others, she said, were all “stakeholders from CalTrans, Greenbelt Alliance, MTC, and they were voting.” 

Confronted by unremitting shout-outs during the opening plenary, the attending officials—Alameda County Supervisor and MTC member Scott Haggerty, Union City Mayor and ABAG President Mark Green, MTC Planning Director Doug Kemsey and ABAG Planning Director Ken Kirkey—decided to hear comments of three minutes apiece from everyone who wished to speak. Most of the dissidents took advantage of that invitation. 

A few days later, I spoke with one of protesters, Castro Valley resident and Internet executive Mimi Steel. Steel, a property rights advocate, said she isn’t a member of the Tea Party but works with the organization, as well as with Koire’s Democrats Against UN Agenda 21. I asked her why she and her fellow dissenters didn’t go to the breakout sessions, where participants had an opportunity to indicate their top priorities for transportation investments and “complete communities.” 

“Because it didn’t matter,” she replied. “They’re going to do whatever they’re going to do, regardless of the public input.” Steel pointed out that SB 375 requires the regional agencies to do outreach. In her view, the way they do it—posing ambiguous questions and providing scant information about complicated issues—renders the public’s response meaningless. At the workshops last spring, she said, people were asked “how important is open space to you? What does that mean?” she said. “In relation to what? How much does it cost to procure open space?” 

The protesters also objected to arrogant facilitators who, they claim, quash politically incorrect participants. “Their objective,” Steel told me, “is to get the answer they want.” At best, she said, they use diversionary tactics, such as telling dissenters to write down their opinions or saying that they will deal with off-agenda issues later; at worst, they resort to humiliation. 

Steel referred me to a video filmed at one of the May workshops in which a participant opines that environmental mandates are driving businesses out of California and then politely but persistently asks if anything in the plan looks at planning’s impacts on businesses and jobs in the state. Instead of answering his question, the presiding facilitator compares him to her five-year-old daughter with whom she does time-outs. At her behest, the workshop attendees vote to move on. 

I didn’t see any such putdowns in Dublin (granted, I couldn’t be in all three workshop venues at once). If anything, officials’ willingness to let people in and hear people out fostered an atmosphere of receptiveness. Everyone who wanted to attend was admitted. According to ABAG staffer JoAnna Bullock, 146 people, including those placed on a waitlist, had registered for the workshop. Fifty-eight of those registered were no-shows; an unknown number of participants refused to sign in; and 45 others signed in as walk-ups. 

Despite the open door policy, the police presence inside and outside the Civic Center was disconcerting; the protesters were angry and loud, but they didn’t seem dangerous. Before the meeting, Dublin Police Lieutenant Steve Brown told the demonstrators who were occupying a small portion of the complex’s very spacious entry plaza to move over. On of them asked, “Is there inadequate room for anyone to pass?” Brown didn’t reply. 

That said, the evening ended on a note of conciliation, largely due to the poise, not to say the charm, with which Supervisor Haggerty moderated the comments session. After listening to two and a half hours of vociferous criticism, Haggerty said that what he’d “heard the most tonight” was “frustration,” but that if people wanted to be effective, they “need[ed] to drop the anger,” “not interrupt” and get organized. He urged the dissidents to send emails, attend MTC meetings and contact their local and state representatives. They responded with applause and thanks, saying that this was the first time in the Plan Bay Area process that they’d been allowed to voice their opinions, and that elected officials had actually listened to what they’d said. 

This video briefly depicts the protest outside the Dublin Civic Center before the beginning of the January 12 Plan Bay Area workshop and then records the entire public comment session in the council chamber. Thanks to Mimi Steel for providing the film. The video runs almost two and a half hours. People cited in the Planet story speak at the following moments:

1:26:07 Mimi Steel
1:39:13 Doug Buckwald
1:45:16 Heather Gass
1:47:58 Steve Finacom
2:18:35 Scott Haggerty